Shehu Yar’Adua: A consummate Bridge Builder

Shehu Yar'adua

August 29, 2020

To many, the name Yar’adua is associated with the former President of Nigeria, Umar Musa Yar’adua. However, before Yar’adua became Governor and later President, His brother was a Vice President back in the 1970s. In fact, some might argue that the younger Yar’adua owes his emergence as President to the closeness of Obasanjo and his late brother, who he served as deputy to. But that is for historians to decide. Our aim is to tell the story of a great son of the country, who paid the ultimate price for the country.

Who is this Shehu Yar’adua of whom little is known of?


The late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua was born into an aristocratic family on the 5th of March, 1943. Yar’adua’s paternal grandmother was the sister of the great Emir of Katsina, Dikko. His father, Malam Musa Yar’adua was the Mutawallin Katsina. He was also The Federal Minister of Establishment, Nigerianisation, and Training in the First Republic. He was later made the Minister for Lagos Affairs, an equivalent of The Minister of FCT. During the Second Republic, he became the pro-term chairman of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in Katsina state.

The Federal Minister of Establishment, Nigerianisation, and Training Alhaji Musa Yar’adua and the President of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikwe.

Early Life

Young Shehu was educated at Katsina Provincial Secondary School, and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, UK. He returned from Sandhurst shortly before the Civil War started, where he played a significant role in the capture of Onitsha, which was one of the key events that led to the end of the war.

Katsina Provincial School, Shehu is seated second from right while former Head of State Muhammadu Buhari is seated third from right.

After the war, Shehu was one of the key coup plotters who removed General Gowon from power in 1975. The others include then Colonel Abdullahi Muhammad, who later became Obasanjo’s Chief of Staff during his second coming. The regime of Gowon had become widely unpopular due to numerous allegations of corruption and it’s the failure to stick to a return to civilian rule. The coup was noted for its lack of bloodshed and the subsequent appointment of the charismatic Murtala Muhammad as the Head of State.

Rise to Power

Shehu was then appointed as the Federal Commissioner of Transport at the age of 33. Shehu had the unenvious role of decongesting the Nigerian Ports. The Nation, was at the time experiencing a cement armada, with 16 Million tonnes of cement docked at the various ports. Under his short-lived guidance, Shehu was credited with establishing a blueprint for the development of Nigeria’s transport sector as well as transforming the Ports.

Shehu Yar’adua’s swearing-in as Commissioner of Transport. Murtala looks on by the right, Obasanjo seated by his side. Tunde Idiagbon stands beside Shehu.

Shehu’s time as a Federal Commissioner was short. Upon the assassination of the revered Head of State Murtala, Shehu was promoted to the rank of a Major General —over the head of some of his seniors— and named the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. He was the de-facto Number two in a triumvirate arrangement consisting of Olusegun Obasanjo as Head of State and Yakubu Danjuma as the Chief of Army Staff.

Shehu Yar’Adua as Vice President

Shehu’s support was needed by the administration with him being a member of the Northern aristocracy. Shehu’s influence and tact succeeded in gaining critical support for the Administration in the North. Among his many achievements as Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, Shehu Yar’Adua was credited to guiding the administration in the conduct of the Local Government elections in 1976. These ensured Local Governments were created as the third tier of Government. Shehu also supervised the ambitious agricultural Programme of the Administration, Operation Feed the Nation.

Obasanjo and Shehu as Vice President during the launch of Operation Feed the Nation.

The most significant achievement of the administration was in ensuring Murtala’s promise of returning rule back to the Civilians was kept. Shehu played a prominent role in ensuring that happened. By 1979 when they hand power over to civilians, Shehu was out of Job at the age of 36.

Life after Retirement

After retiring from the military, Shehu established a holding company called Hamada Holdings. He was also an investor in the Nigerian branch of Habib Bank. With partners and investors, he established a publishing company, cultivated agricultural holdings, developed manufacturing, oil service, and shipping facilities. He was responsible for the success of The Islam in Africa Organization.

Shehu the businessman at the launch of a business venture. Atiku Abubakar is seated by his right.

As Chairman of the National Mosque Committee, he oversaw the funding and construction of the National Mosque, Abuja. In April 1987 he was turbaned Tafidan Katsina, a traditional title he inherited from his father.

Shehu’s turbaning as Tafidan Katsina.

Foray Into Politics

After the return of the Military, Shehu Joined politics with a bid to dislodge his former colleagues in Uniform from power. Shehu and his associates, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, formed what they called; The People’s Front. It later metamorphosed into the Social Democratic Party (SDP), on which platform Shehu aspired for the presidency in 1992. As an aspirant, Shehu and his team of gifted Nigerians from all over the country, traveled the whole length of the country canvassing for support. His campaign was devoid of ethnic bias and religious or regional sentiment, breaking the cycle of regional and religious politics which has dominated the country since independence.

Shehu Yar’Adua was a gifted politician. His aspiration for the SDP Presidential ticket was inspired by a desire to give the nation the committed and responsible leadership the country so desperately desired and deserved. Just as he was poised to be the party’s nominee for Presidency, The Military perhaps uncomfortable with his candidature canceled the primaries and banned all the aspirants.

Shehu Yar’Adua joined politics and contested for President.

The humble and magnanimous person that he is, Shehu continued to provide his support and mentorship to the new breed of politicians. When his favored candidate for the Presidency— Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was defeated by the eventual winner MKO Abiola, he insisted on party loyalty and supported him even when MKO didn’t pick Atiku as his running mate like agreed. The rest as they said, is history.


In 1994, when a National Constitutional Conference was called, Shehu won the contest to represent Katsina State. He became an ardent and influential critic of the elongation of Military Rule in Nigeria. His popular and often well-publicized statements attracted the attention of the Military Government headed by Late Abacha, and he was detained for four days and later released. Seeing as Shehu’s commitment and support for civilian rule didn’t waver, Shehu was arrested on trumped-up charges of an alleged coup d’etat in early 1995. He was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment later that same year by a Military Tribunal.

Even while in Jail, Shehu’s spirit and determination weren’t broken. From Kirikiri Prison in 1995, he wrote;

“I am sure you know that Nigeria will always be at the forefront of my thoughts. You need not fear my continued commitment to the welfare and well-being of Nigeria. My present worries and prayers are that the present junta do not so devastate the country that it becomes impossible to rehabilitate. We will continue to pray.

Shehu Yar’Adua

Shehu Yar’Adua’s Death

With a long history of smoking and poor dieting, Shehu’s health deteriorated while in Prison. On the 8th of December, he slumped in his room and had to be taken to the hospital for urgent medical attention. He was later pronounced dead from natural causes. Many, including Obasanjo however continue to suspect foul play in the manner, as his blood samples were once taken without his permission while in prison.

General Abacha and M.K.O Abiola who dominated the politics of the time died six months earlier. With the sad demise of Shehu, the curtain fell on the Third Republic and the stage was ushered in for the Fourth Republic where Shehu’s former Bosss, Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president.

Legacy of Shehu Yar’Adua

Among his many legacies, Shehu is remembered for championing the cause of Democracy for which he paid the ultimate price. Though a former military man himself, Shehu took up arms against his former comrades when he saw that they overstayed their stay. Shehu and his boss Obasanjo were the first Military administration to hand over power to a democratically elected Government, even though they could have stayed. Shehu was also credited with ensuring the National Mosque project was funded and built. He also invited the now-defunct Habib Bank into Nigeria. His role as a global Muslim leader was also undisputed.

The National Mosque which construction and funding was supervised by Shehu is part of his Legacy.

His brother Umaru, went on to become elected as Governor of Katsina State, partly due to Shehu’s Influence. He later became Nigeria’s President. Shehu’s associates and political disciples include Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Former Senate President Chuba Okadigbo, Yomi Edu, Tony Anenih, and numerous others. Shehu Yar’Adua Foundation in Abuja was founded in his name, and Shehu Musa Yar’adua center was named after him. The foundation’s visions include; to promote national unity, good governance, and social justice by creating platforms to engage citizens, policymakers, and stakeholders in national conversations that foster an inclusive and prosperous Nigeria.

The late Ummaru Musa Yar’adua. May his soul continue to rest in peace.

Even while in death, Shehu continued to influence the politics and affairs of the country. On his 40th day prayer, a group of prominent politicians met afterward and decided enough was enough. The group later expanded to become what was known as the G32, which later became the ruling party in the country; The PDP. They wrote a letter to Abacha, demanding a return to civilian rule. The rest, as they say, is history.

Shehu was survived by his wife Binta—whom he married in 1965— and their five children, including Murtala who was appointed Minister of Defense by Goodluck Jonathan in 2011, and another one named Buhari, perhaps named after his classmate and friend Major General Muhammadu Buhari. May God continue to rest his soul.

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